It's one thing to lose a job to someone with more skills, but quite another when that person was genetically engineered to replace you. And will go on to replace your whole family too.
The fear of being fundamentally replaceable is one of the many anxieties that squirms through David Marusek's new novel, Mind Over Ship, the sequel to his critically-acclaimed first novel Counting Heads. Marusek's series is growing into an epic about clone anxieties in an age of nanotech plagues, "nitworks" of dust-sized surveillance devices, artificially-intelligent paste, and corporate-funded space colonization.
Mind Over Ship picks up directly after the events of Counting Heads, following the ongoing neurotic adventures of a clone named Fred, a part of the russ line of clones who may or may not suffer from "clone fatigue," a condition where he stops behaving the way he was bred to.
Adding to Fred's fatigue is his marriage to the clone Mary, who comes from the notoriously-unstable evangeline line of clones. Originally bred to be drama-queen besties with rich ladies, perfect for weepy confabs over ice cream, the market for evangelines evaporated before they matured and went to market. So the whole line has found itself unable to find adequate work - not hot enough to be sex toys, and not driven enough to be worker drones like the russes, the evangelines spend their days making useless art projects and driving their gainfully-employed russ husbands crazy.
But as Mind Over Ship opens, the tables have turned. Mary and her evangeline sisters have gotten rich after inventing a line of holographic actresses modeled on their own crazy-magnetic personalities. And Fred has committed a crime that's gotten him all but kicked out of the russ brotherhood. Fomerly a middle-class city worker, Fred has been reduced to doing work with the john line of clones, all of whom are designed for blue collar labor.
Fred and Mary's domestic drama takes place against the backdrop of corporate conspiracies and posthuman conditions that tread the line between scientific speculation and surrealism. The humanist global megacorp Starke Enerprises is trying to maintain control of a nonprofit that will colonize space with dozens of O-Ships, giant generational ships packed with millions of frozen people. But Ellen Starke, heir to Starke Enterprises, is going mad while trying to regrow a body for her severed head. She keeps insisting that her dead mother will return, which is exactly what her mother is trying to do - but it's complicated because her consciousness is being held in distributed storage across the brains of hundreds of fish.
While Ellen toddles around with her adult head attached to a baby body, her mother tries to persuade corporate consultant MeeWee to maintain control of the O-Ship project. Unfortunately, several other megacorps want to keep the O-Ships in orbit around Earth so they can develop them as space condos. One of these companies, run by a guy named Million Singh, has manufactured several new batches of clones that threaten to replace the russes, johns, and every other clone created by American company Applied People. Singh's clones are optimized for space work: Their bodies are small, and they have prehensile tails (and, weirdly, prehensile penises) that help them move around in freefall.
Eventually, the unemployed Fred finds himself caught up in the corporate conspiracies, traveling to space to work on the contested O-Ships and face down the penisy donald clones that threaten to replace the russes. It's a race against time to save the O-Ship colonization project, which may be the only hope for humanity - and posthumanity, too.
Marusek is famous for writing novels of ideas, and if you're looking for intricate, solid worldbuilding you won't be disappointed in Mind Over Ship. But what this novel truly excels at is creating a psychological mood, a feeling of futuristic neurosis that would certainly haunt anyone whose entire body and consciousness had been engineered by a company.
Never one to shy away from imagery that will make you feel crawly and repulsive, Marusek shows us a future where nanotech means shitting out giant silver turds full of surveillance devices - and where people's rotting, diseased bodies cling to life in vats of bubbling liquid and in the bodies of mite-infested fish. This is not the shiny, transcend-your-body future that so many nanopunk writers explore. It's a world where the ability to manipulate our bodies has actually made fleshly life more disturbing than it already was.
The novel's only failings lie in the unexplained complexity of Marusek's future. Unless you've read Counting Heads quite recently, you'll find it difficult to recall what all his acronyms stand for and which characters are involved in which conspiratorial subplot. I'm afraid people who haven't read the first novel will be quite lost, though the basic idea of corporations fighting to control space colonization should be easy enough to understand.
At the same time, Marusek lingers for too long over explanations of ideas, such as "posthumanity," that require little introduction for science fiction readers. There are some long, stilted exposition moments that feel artificial compared to the rich, emotional tenor of the rest of the novel.
But these failings don't offset what the book has to offer, which is a rare literary look at neurosis in the context of a fully-realized speculative future scenario. If you've ever wanted to mash up Philip Roth with Philip K. Dick and read the results, then David Marusek is your man.